After the 2017 season ended, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett decided to make some wholesale changes to the structure of the Dallas Cowboys to avoid another disappointment, if 9-7 can really be called a disappointment. While offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli both remained with the team, much of the staff around them has changed. This series is meant to profile each coach, including the ones who stayed, and analyze how their presence will contribute to the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. Today, we are looking at the man who will be helping Kris Richard remake this secondary, Greg Jackson. Be sure to check out our other profiles below:
A lot has been said about Kris Richard, the man in charge of the defensive backs for the Cowboys, but every good sheriff needs a deputy. For Richard, that role falls to Greg Jackson. A graduate of LSU, Jackson played safety in the NFL for 12 years, including stints with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. Now he is coaching the safeties for the Dallas Cowboys, making it the third NFC East team he’s been a part of.
In 2003, Jackson began his college coaching career and bounced around a few low-level programs before he became the nickel cornerbacks coach and assistant linebackers coach for Wisconsin in 2010. While Wisconsin was already a fairly established program under Bret Bielema, Jackson’s presence saw an uptick in defensive production. The Badgers ranked 15th in the nation in total defense, 24th against the run, and 18th against the pass. Wisconsin also had the 17th best scoring defense, only allowing 19 points per game despite alarmingly low numbers of sacks and takeaways.
This success was part of what got Jackson hired as the assistant defensive backs coach for the San Francisco 49ers when Jim Harbaugh became the head coach in 2011. As assistant defensive backs coach, Jackson primarily worked with the safeties in helping to create one of the best defenses in the NFL at the time. In 2011, safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner both had career years patrolling the secondary for San Francisco. Additionally, Jackson played an integral role in the fast development of Eric Reid, a fellow LSU alum; Reid was so impressive he became the first rookie safety to make the Pro Bowl in 49ers history. Over the four years Jackson was in San Francisco, the defense was third in total defense and passes defensed, tied for second in the league in interceptions, and second in scoring defense, only allowing 17.4 points per game.
After the 49ers mutually parted ways with (but really fired) Harbaugh, Jackson followed him to Michigan to serve as the defensive backs coach for a year. The 2015 Wolverines would shock the world with their quick turnaround, predicated largely on a lockdown defense that pitched three consecutive shutouts for the first time since 1995. Jackson’s secondary led the Big Ten in passing defense, passing efficiency, and third downs allowed, and saw great play from guys such as Jabrill Peppers, Jeremy Clark, and someone named Jourdan Lewis, who became a first-team All American that year.
Jackson was then hired by the Cowboys in 2016 to coach the safeties alongside then cornerbacks coach Joe Baker. His first year in Dallas saw some improvements to the safety position in terms of play. Barry Church, who was already a leader in the secondary, was second on the team in tackles with 109 and also had two interceptions, a career high until last season in Jacksonville. Byron Jones, who had taken over the full-time free safety spot after the departure of J.J. Wilcox, was fourth on the team in tackles with 102 and also recorded his first career interception. All in all, five of the nine interceptions the Cowboys snagged in 2016 were by a safety.
In 2017, the safety position saw a lot of instability when Church left in free agency. Beginning the year with Jones and Jeff Heath as the starters at safety, Jackson and Rod Marinelli eventually went to a rotation at the position, with Jones frequently coming up to the line of scrimmage as a slot corner, Heath switching between both safety spots, rookie Xavier Woods playing both single high safety and slot corner, and Kavon Frazier coming into the box on run plays for his hard hitting style.
The rotation, while less than ideal, ultimately worked for Dallas better than it had earlier in the season. The rapid development of Woods was a particularly positive sign, as he’s now the frontrunner to be the new starting free safety. His rookie season may not have been as excellent as Eric Reid’s was, but Jackson seemed to work some of the same magic on the X-Man.
However, Jackson will be making an adjustment in 2018 now that he’s assisting Richard. It’s highly likely that a rotation will not be used again, and Jones is moving back to his natural position of cornerback. In the past, Marinelli often used his safeties in varying ways, as alluded to earlier. Playing Jones and Woods in the slot frequently, Marinelli’s defense was third in the NFL in 2017 for safety snaps in the slot.
With the way Richard coaches his defensive backs, that percentage will likely drop. The added bonus of having both Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown as nickel corners allows for the safeties to focus on more specialized roles. If Heath is the starting strong safety, expect to see a lot of him in the box, with Woods up top as the single high safety patrolling the center field. As mentioned, Jackson’s first year in both San Francisco and Dallas saw both safeties in the top five of their teams in tackles, while Jackson was able to help turn Reid into a talented center field type of safety. If he can improve the tackling mechanics of these safeties, and continue the development of Woods in his second year, the Cowboys could have a safety group that supplements their young and talented cornerbacks.
As a bonus nugget of trivia, Jackson also has a crazy history with Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith from Jackson’s playing days, as detailed by Jeffrey Kahn of 247 Sports:
With the NFC East on the line for the 1993 season, the Cowboys and Giants met up in the season finale. Just before half, running back Emmitt Smith scampered for a nice gain where he was dragged down by Jackson from behind. Smith hit the ground hard and was immediately in pain — Smith ended up separating his shoulder. With practically one arm, Smith finished the game with 32 carries for 168 yards and 10 catches for 61 yards and one touchdown.